Tracking Progress on Do Not Track


The Tracking Protection Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) met last week in Washington, D.C. to further its efforts in developing industry standards for Do Not Track (DNT) measures. As deadlines for public release of the specifications near, the pressure is on for the group to come to agreement on critical policy questions around Do Not Track. The group has made a lot of progress on some issues such as reaching general agreement that DNT is primarily aimed at third parties who collect data at sites. However, substantial debate continues around the definition of a third party and what those third parties can do with data when the DNT header is “on.”

Some stakeholder participants maintain that DNT should give consumers the ability to block most data collection by third parties, and only allow collection and retention for limited specified purposes, such as fraud and security. Other participants maintain that they need to be able to collect more data under DNT in order to perform business functions such as frequency capping, auditing, financial logging, and market research.

FTC Commissioner Julie Brill made a guest appearance to show the FTC’s support for the W3C’s efforts, identifying it as one of three major DNT processes underway-the other accompanying processes are the advertising trade groups’ self-regulatory program and popular browsers that have implemented do not track mechanisms. The FTC set the stage for a future DNT framework in its Final Privacy Report released last month. The report called for a Do Not Track standard to mean more than just “Do Not Target” and to have elements of “Do Not Collect.” Failing the inclusion of this, the FTC indicated it would support DNT legislation. However, Commissioner Brill stated that she, along with FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, is confident that there will be an effective DNT framework by the end of the year.

Why is tracking so important for companies, if they have already agreed to allow users to opt-out of behavioral advertising? Tiny banner ads are a poor way to influence users compared to the richness of TV, radio, and magazines. But banner ads and their effectiveness can be precisely measured in ways that the other media cannot be (yet!). Advertisers still spend the bulk of their dollars offline, even though users increasingly spend large chunks of their day on the web. The big value add for many web publishers is their ability to report which ads on which sites were successful in causing users to transact on other sites and later in time.

For some, allowing the logging of data needed for such cross-site tracking creates too many risks. They worry the government might seek the data or they do not trust companies to refrain from using it for profiling or for discriminatory purposes. Others argue that consumers who are promised that they will not be tracked expect not to be tracked at all.

We believe that the potential compromise solution will need to allow for the basics of analytics and ad reporting, while relying on de-identification and retention limits as well as contractual and policy commitments to minimize privacy risks.

We were surprised to see Yahoo called out yesterday by the WSJ as “leading the charge” against DNT. If a DNT compromise is reached, no individual on the industry side will be more deserving of credit than Yahoo’s Shane Wiley. He and his team at Yahoo have spent countless hours on proposals seeking to bridge the differences among companies and other stakeholders. The volume of emails in our inbox and on the W3C listserv is a testament to that.

There is still much work to be done and the next weeks will be critical.

For a detailed analysis of the Do Not Track debate, read Jules Polonetsky and Omer Tene’s paper, “To Track or Do Not Track.”


-Lia Sheena